Saturday night was different. And it wasn’t just the lights, the stadium and the state of the pitch. It was the feeling. Last year’s opening defeat of Clare was a pleasant surprise, just as the previous year’s defeat by Galway in Galway was a confirmatory warning that it wasn’t going to be a pleasant year. The difference was in the feeling between hoping for a win, and expecting to win. That difference is considerable and brings with it its own pressure.
Especially when it’s Kilkenny who are in the other corner. The last time Cork opened their league campaign at home against them in 2015, they sneaked off with the two points with a two point victory. Kilkenny may not be anything approaching what they were at the turn of the decade but, on the whole, Cork haven’t had enough credit in the bank to be expecting to beat Kilkenny for quite a while. Not even enough of the legendary pseudo-confidence if we’re honest.
So it was an anxious, fearful confidence that held sway in the gap between the football and the hurling. I don’t think I was alone in that feeling either. Nobody that I spoke to seemed to know what to expect but they all felt that Cork should win and, as much as anything else, were desperate to see a continuation of the upward curve.
The start helped ease most of the tension with Robbie O’Flynn’s point and Shane Kingston’s goal making everyone feel more at home in the new Páirc. But then a few chances went astray, Kilkenny, who were particularly strong up their left hand side in the first half, began to get scores a bit easier and the early advantage soon gave way to parity as a game of the ‘nip and tuck’ variety emerged.
As ever, they seemed to come out on top when the ball hit the deck though Luke Meade did help improve things on his introduction. Brian Lawton was the fall guy and it was hard not to empathize with him as he made way. It’s often easier to drag a fringe player in a situation like that, how often do we see it?
Still, there was plenty for Cork to be positive about too. They should have had two more goals through Harnedy and Cadogan and in general the commitment and effort were very good, it was just the touch and urgency that was that bit off. Patrick Collins performed excellently in goal, particularly given the circumstances, while Seán O’Donoghue, Timmy O’Mahony and Robbie O’Flynn all seemed at home in their new environment. However, the one point deficit at the break ensured that the anxiety remained.
Cork were much better on the resumption, however, and you got the sense that they were always on the verge of pulling away. When Darragh Fitzgibbon’s sweet strike split the posts to put the goal between them with fifteen minutes remaining, the expectation was that it was the cue to push on even more.
However, Shane Kingston went for goal when a point might have been the better option and from the resultant scramble Pádraig Walsh burst out to bring Kilkenny back into it. Then they got another before Big Walter leveled it up. And there it was again, the anxiety.
It was how Cork responded to this challenge that was the most impressive and satisfying part of the evening. While the unfortunate and excellent Cillian Buckley received attention, they took the chance to regroup. On the resumption Cork were dominant and outscored Kilkenny 0-5 to 0-2 (Jack O’Connor’s being the pick of the bunch as he continued from where he left off with Sars at the end of the year), defended very well, generally played their best hurling of the evening and never looked like losing.
So as the masses emptied out into the darkness of the Monaghan Road, there was an air of quiet contentment as people made their way home or into town to further discuss things late into the night.
I’m sure the same feeling was in the dressing-room too, along with a little relief. Expectation just brings a different type of pressure to both management and players and they can all look forward to a completely different environment in Wexford Park next Sunday. After reading Jackie Tyrell’s revelations about his days in LIT with Davy, it seems the battle will be as much mental as it will be physical, though Kieran Murphy will be well aware of what’s to come.
For the footballers, however, the trip up to Newry got a little longer. Saturday night was a timely reminder of where Cork are at this moment in time; hanging on by their fingernails to be a distant second in Munster. It was a very experimental team and there were plenty of players missing but it could be a long, challenging campaign.
What was frustrating about it was that the Tipperary goals came from situations that Cork were actually in control of, and that Cork spurned plenty of their own opportunities, and………….it’s only January.